Does History Make Students Better Citizens? (And How Do We Measure that?)

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Rothstein, research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, in the Journal of American History (subscribers only) (March 2004):

Americans have never considered learning history to be an end in itself. Instruction about history and the development of political institutions (civics) has always been justified as an exercise that would produce better citizens, however blandly defined. Yet educators have never successfully explained how the content of history or civics curricula promotes the stated goal of good citizenship. Even when educators duck this problem of means and ends and treat history and civics instruction as an end in itself, they have no realistic expectations of what students should learn. Most definitions of student proficiency are corrupted by nostalgia for alleged past achievement levels that never existed.

What is more, educators cannot make up their minds about whether history instruction (and hence its assessment) should be"broad" or"deep." This is also true in other fields (it has become commonplace for experts to say, for example, that mathematics curricula are"a mile wide and an inch deep" and are thus flawed), but the problem is compounded in history because ideological and political disputes distort pedagogy. All partisans insist that they want both depth and breadth, but in practice the Left prefers depth and the Right prefers breadth. Since nobody is satisfied by assessments that inevitably take sides in this dispute, these conflicts cannot be resolved by educators alone. ...

Although there is no evidence that history knowledge leads to better or more loyal citizenship, the relationship seems plausible. But there are reasons to be cautious. Consider that white students get higher scores on tests of history than black students. But black students are more than four times as likely to discuss the national news with their parents as white students are. Which is a better measure of the effectiveness of instruction: test scores or an inclination to discuss public affairs outside the classroom?

Further, good citizenship and loyalty are, to some extent, not objective characteristics but attributes defined by partisan objectives. Blacks, who score lower on tests of history knowledge than whites, tend to vote for more liberal candidates than do whites. Children from affluent families score higher on tests of history than do children from working-class families. But upper-income voters tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative than working-class voters. Are the wealthy better citizens? Participation and political values are related. It is inconceivable that educators can promote the former while maintaining neutrality about the latter....

In any nation—the United States is no exception—political extremists may know more history and achieve higher test scores than a random sample of their age peers."We do not have all the answers to this complex phenomenon," the Shanker Institute concluded,"and we may never have." Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been prominent in urging more study of history so that young people will"appreciate how greatly fortunate we are to live in freedom" and, by implication, be more supportive of the response of George W. Bush's adminstration to the terrorist attacks. Many of us who are highly educated share Mrs. Cheney's conceit that if only young people had more historical insight, they would share our political viewpoints. But she could be more cautious—sophistication sometimes evolves into cynicism. At any rate, the study of history needs better than patriotic justification.

In sum, there is no agreement among educators about what good citizenship means, and no satisfactory record of measuring how any definition of citizenship is affected by history or civics instruction. Instead we have chosen to evaluate only the achievement of short-term goals that may have little relation to the outcomes we claim truly to want.

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